Kenetic! That word alone captures the energy of this movie. This is easily the most enjoyable film of the summer (so far) that starts the viewer with a grin and the ends with applause. It is tempting to say this is the best movie musical since Grease. Sure, other musicals have been good (Moulin Rouge) even Academy Award-winning (Chicago) but none of them were so exciting, so electric. This movie worked!
The characters were classic and endearing.
- Nikki Blonsky plays the pleasantly plump heroine Tracy Turnblad who captures our hearts with her opening song “Good Morning, Baltimore.”
- Christopher Walken was a jewel, as Tracy’s father who is delightful in his scenes with other characters.
- Michelle Pfeiffer plays Velma Von Tussle, the TV station manager, faded beauty queen, and mother of an aspiring “Hairspray Queen.”
- Jerry Stiller (yes, father of Ben) who played Wilbur Turnblad in the original movie appears in this one as Mr. Pinky.
- James Marsden as the eponymous Corny Collins, the handsome host of the local teen dance show, pure white bread but an interest in making the show more integrated. He shows us that there is life after being an X-man (Cyclops).
- Zac Efron plays Link Larking, the show’s hunk-o-rama and the love interest of Tracy. He’s also the heartthrob in Disney’s “High School Musical.”
- Queen Latifah was big, blond, and beautiful. She consumed every scene she was in, both in terms of her presence and her voice. She can rock, she can do gospel. When she cut loose, it was like Aretha Franklin in the “Blues Brothers.”
- John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother, was the big surprise. He dressed in drag and a fat suit and many wondered if it would work. It did. He affected a Baltimore accent — where they make “on” a two syllable word — and it was delightful to see him dance with both daughter and husband.
You were waiting to see if he would make a “tip of the hat” to any of his iconic movies. Would it be “Saturday Night Fever,” “Urban Cowboy,” or “Grease?” No, it was “Pulp Fiction” where he dances with two fingers dragged across his face. Everyone in the audience caught it.
Often throughout the movie, one is reminded of other movie musicals. For example, the “dancing in the street” scene in Hairspray hearkens back to one of the scenes in “The Blues Brothers” but it’s done better here. One of the conflicts set up in this movie is between the “nice” white dancers who appear daily on the TV dance show, and the black dancers who are showcased only once a month on Motormouth Maybelle’s (Latifah) hosted “Negro Day”. The dancing by the blacks, led by Maybelle’s son (Elijah Kelley) is so vigorous that one is reminded of the virile Sharks street dance in “West Side Story”. The final dance-off scene at the end was like “Hand Jive” in Grease, but was so much better that it blew away the competition. The black “girl group” showed us what “Dreamgirls” should have been, but never achieved.
This movie is based on the 1988 John Waters film, which was turned into a Broadway musical in 2002. Waters has a cameo as a flasher in the current film. Though set in Baltimore, it was actually filmed in Toronto.
60s nostalgia is currently in full bloom not only because it’s the 40th anniversary of “The Summer of Love” but also with such new hit series like AMC TV’s “Mad Men” about 1960’s Madison Avenue advertising men. But by trimming some of the issues from the original movie/show, Hairspray managed to get out with a PG rating. The 60’s of this movie is not the 60’s we usually refer to — this is before the Beatles, before the death of JFK, before drugs and free love. This was an era when kids talked about cooties and teens were most concerned about the latest dance, their image, their hair, and their hairspray.
And it works.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian